Holding out for those last few lines of data

This is the 7th and last post in Robin Bell’s description of scientific research in Antarctica in late 2008 and early 2009.

The original flight plans for the project have been configured and reconfigured since we started our planning. The scientists hoped to squeeze every opportunity out of the field season. After spending several years planning the project, to leave any of the survey area unexamined was unthinkable.

However even before we started, the logistics crews had shortened the project. Concerns with the narrow weather window, the altitude issues, the fuel needs, and camp logistics all pushed against the original 35 days in the field to shrink it to a 25 days … a 30% loss.

In all, 50 flights were planned from AGAP S camp, and every one had valuable data that we would need to put together the images and information we sought. Fifty flights would mean 2 flights a day for 25 straight days of survey work. Our late arrival at camp left us 20 days, and weather delays and equipment issues have shortened that further, but a determined science team can work through these setbacks.

When we were able, we flew 4 flights a day. The day crew would fly out for one round, return to refuel and go back out again. When they returned to eat and sleep the second crew repeated the process.

The British team from AGAP N finished their flights, and leaving a team to close their camp they came to help with the remaining flight lines. But the weather turned poor and several days passed without any planes in the air. We finally sent the British team on to McMurdo and worried about whether we should be leaving too.

But there was an unfinished bit of business that kept us holding out. The remaining flight lines connected to the Recovery Lakes, four lakes on the Northwest edge of the study area, that feed into the 800 km long Recovery Ice Stream. We had located these subglacial lakes in 2007 at what appeared to be the head of the ice stream, an ice stream that moves about 35 billion tons of ice into the Southern Ocean each year. When the ice stream moves over these lakes it accelerates. Gathering data on these lakes may offer clues to the ice sheet plumbing, and explain the connection between subglacial lakes and ice sheet movement.

We waited. Finally we were able to send out a flight, and as we celebrated our success at having sent the plane to capture the data, the plane returned! Problems in the fuel lines. One more lost attempt.

Finally five days after we were to have packed out of the camp we celebrated success! The weather cleared, the plane flew, the data was captured!

It had been touch and go, but our research season in Antarctica ended successfully.

Robin Bell is a geophysicist and research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. She has coordinated seven major aero-geophysical expeditions to Antarctica studying subglacial lakes, ice sheets and the mechanisms of ice sheet movement and collapse, and currently the Gamburtsev Mountains, a large alp sized subglacial mountain range in East Antarctica.

January 18, 2009

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